Shanghai and Beijing Unrest over China's COVID Curbs Mounts

Beijing: Widespread protests in China against heavy COVID-19 restrictions spread to Shanghai on Sunday at one of Beijing’s most prestigious universities after a deadly fire broke out in the country’s far west.

The wave of civil disobedience, which has included protests in Urumqi, where the fire broke out, as well as in Beijing and other cities, has reached unprecedented levels in mainland China since Xi Jinping took power a decade ago. In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, residents gathered on Saturday night on Wulumuqi Road – named after Urumqi – for a candlelight vigil that turned into a protest in the early hours of Sunday.

As a large group of police looked on, the crowd held up blank sheets of paper – a protest symbol against censorship. Later on, they shouted, “lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China!”, according to a video circulated on social media.

At another point, a large group began shouting, “Down with the Chinese Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping”, according to witnesses and videos, in a rare public protest against the country’s leadership. The police tried at times to break up the crowd.

Huge crowds gathered on the campus of Beijing’s Tsinghua University, according to photos and videos posted on social media. Some people also had blank papers in their hands.

Thursday’s fire that killed 10 people in a high-rise building in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, saw crowds take to the street on Friday evening, chanting “End the lockdown!” and pumping their fists in the air, according to videos on social media.

Many Internet users speculated that the residents were unable to escape in time because the building was partially sealed off, which was denied by city officials. Some people have been locked down for up to 100 days in the city of Urumqi with a population of four million.

China is stuck with Xi’s signature zero-Covid policy while much of the world tries to co-exist with the coronavirus. While low by global standards, China’s cases have reached record highs for days, with nearly 40,000 new infections on Saturday. China defends the policy as lifesaving and necessary to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. Officials have vowed to continue despite growing public opposition and its mounting toll on the world’s second-largest economy.

Widespread public protest is extremely rare in China, where room for dissent has been all but eliminated under Xi, forcing citizens mostly to vent on social media, where they play cat-and-mouse with censors. Frustration is boiling just over a month after Xi secured a third term at the helm of China’s Communist Party.

“This will put serious pressure on the party to respond. There is a good chance that one response will be repression, and they will arrest and prosecute some protesters,” said Dan Mattingly, assistant professor of political science at Yale University. Still, he said, the unrest is a far cry from the unrest seen in 1989, when protests culminated in bloody crackdowns in Tiananmen Square. He said that as long as Xi has China’s elite and military on his side, he will not face any meaningful risk to his hold on power.

This weekend, Ma Jingrui, secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party, called on the region to step up security maintenance and stop “illegal violent rejection of Covid-prevention measures”.

Xinjiang officials have also said that public transport services will gradually resume in Urumqi from Monday. Other cities that have seen public discontent include Lanzhou in the northwest, where residents on Saturday uprooted tents of COVID workers and vandalized testing booths, posts on social media showed. Protesters said they were put under lockdown even though no one had tested positive.

Candlelight demonstrations for the Urumqi victims took place at universities in cities such as Nanjing and Beijing. Videos from Shanghai showed crowds facing police and chanting “Serve the people”, “We want freedom”, and “We don’t want health codes”, a reference to the mobile phone apps that must be scanned for entry into public places across China.

The city’s 25 million people were put under lockdown for two months earlier this year, provoking anger and protests. Chinese authorities have since then sought to be more targeted in their COVID curbs, an effort that has been challenged by the surge in infections as the country faces its first winter with the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

In Beijing on Saturday, a few residents under lockdown were able to successfully protest and pressure local officials to lift the restrictions ahead of schedule.

By Archana

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